Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Power, according to Professor Galbraith, is very, very elusive

By Earl W. FoellEditor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor / November 1, 1983

Cambridge, Mass.

Five or six years ago in Russia I was taken out to spend the day at Gosplan - the state planning committee. Bureaucratic inflexibility was one of the topics. When it was all over, the deputy head of the planning committee and a man from one of the research organizations walked out to make sure my car was there.

Skip to next paragraph

''It was POURING rain. As we waited for the car, a sprinkler came on down the street, sprinkling the road. The deputy head of the planning apparatus of the whole Soviet Union said, 'There you see, professor, what we've been talking about. He's fulfilling his plan!' ''m

John Kenneth Galbraith, long known as the scourge of American corporate bureaucracy, sprawled comfortably in his living room easy chair as he enjoyed recounting this Chaplinesque scene from the other superpower's bureaucracy.

His Lincoln-size legs formed an angular arch to a distant footstool. He was discussing the shifting locus of power down through the centuries from personality (leaders with power to persuade or punish) and property (monetary reward) to today's dominant organizational power centers (corporations, unions, state bureaucracies, lobbying associations).

The takeoff point for our discussion was his 23rd book, ''The Anatomy of Power,'' published last month.

In his deadpan way, Galbraith was goring oxen by the dozen. Among the gored: secretaries of defense (''forgettable the day they leave office''), CEOs of heavy industries (''they come to resemble, intellectually and physically, the products they make''), business competition as a mechanism for efficiency (''overrated''). None were unusual targets for Galbraith wit.

But there were also surprises among the casualties as the picador of Francis Street, Cambridge, analyzed today's world. Some of the very institutions in which he believes most fervently (and, in some instances, holds membership) were gently and not so gently impaled: Ground Zero, the nuclear freeze movement in general, the Council for a Livable World, the Union of Concerned Scientists - all of which he feels have a tendency to mistake speechmaking, press-releasing, or pamphleteering for power. He calls this ''the illusion of power,'' which supplants and saps real power.

Professor Galbraith also displays his unconcern for liberal orthodoxy by criticizing dogmatists on antitrust action (''the last resort of the vacant liberal mind''), and by expressing doubts about currently voguish industrial policy - joint corporate-state planning on industrial and trade priorities (''an escape from action on absolutely essential wage and price policy'').

But if the bard of liberal Democratic economics is a picador to opponent and ally alike, he is of the Portuguese rather than the Spanish school of bullfighting. He mortally tweaks rather than mortally wounds. And in our long interview in his handsome living room just off the Harvard campus, he managed to paint a serious, constructive picture of some aspects of today's world.

First, although he is pessimistic about preventing missile deployment on both sides of Europe, he felt that the power of public response would eventually force politicians into serious arms control progress - just as the slow-gathering force of public concern ended Vietnam.

Second, despite his pessimism about bureaucratic stagnation in aging American industries, he was enthusiastic about the prospects of new ones. Not surprisingly, that category included microelectronics. But his greatest enthusiasm was reserved for ''the wave of the future, something far more important - the whole industry of the arts.''

Faced with a quizzical look in response to this unorthodox rating of the arts industry ahead of the high-tech industry, Galbraith elaborated:

''Music, films, theater, television productions, clothes and clothing design, the visual and performing arts. . . . These are industries which, even at their worst, have a quality of change, a dynamic, and also - something which we rarely realize - an American advantage which is very great. We're not in danger from the Japanese on 'Dallas.' ''

All this comment on current headline themes grew out of discussing ''The Anatomy of Power.'' Galbraith is emphatic - in book and interview - that he wanted to help readers analyze types of power and the way they have evolved through history, not to suggest action.